Zero-hours contracts: the face of casualisation

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While the government talks up the rising levels of employment, the reality is that unemployment remains nearly 50% higher than it was before the crisis, and that the bulk of new jobs that have been created over the past period are part-time and/or temporary. In the period April-June 2008, part-time workers made up 25% of the workforce in Britain, 9% of whom were working part-time because they could not get full-time work. For the period November 2013 to January 2014, the number of part–time workers had risen to 8.08 million, 26.8% of the workforce, with 18.2% of them unable to find more work – double the 2008 proportion. At the same time, 1.6 million people were in temporary work, of whom 37%, or 595,000, were unable to find a permanent job.

Government ‘consults’ on zero-hours contracts

The accelerating casualisation of working class jobs is demonstrated most sharply in the growth of zero-hours contracts. These are generally understood to be employment contracts where the employer gives no commitment to provide any hours, but where the worker has to be available for work at any time. However, no data has been collected their use, so it is hard to determine how many workers are involved. The government suggests 250,000 people; the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) thinks one million, and Unite the Union up to five million.

Adverse publicity on the exploitative character of zero-hours contracts has forced the government to order an investigation into possible abuses while defending the principle at stake:

'The Government’s vision is for a labour market that is flexible, effective and fair. There is a risk that the issues identified by the information gathering exercise could undermine this vision and undermine the valuable role zero-hours contracts can play in the economy...Our aim through this consultation is to find which options best prevent any abuse of zero-hours contracts while maximising the opportunity and flexibility such contracts can present.'

The results of the consultation, which ended on 13 March 2014, have yet to be announced. However, we know that zero-hours contracts are a logical progression in capitalist labour relations, and the government is not going to restrict their use. Its main concern is that ‘abuse of zero-hours contracts can also have a negative impact on UK businesses generally if it leads to a potentially efficient form of contracting being under-used.’

To ensure a favourable result, part of the research for the consultation was handed over to the Institute of Directors (IoD). The IoD has condemned a potential ban on zero-hours contracts as ‘misguided and extremely damaging’ and has stated, ‘Taking on a full-time member of staff remains a risky and potentially expensive option for any company emerging from the downturn.’ 11% of IoD member companies use zero-hours contracts.

Exclusivity clauses

The consultation was to seek views on ‘exclusivity clauses’. These are clauses used in some zero-hours contracts to prevent the employee from working for another company even if their current employer offers no guarantee of work. CIPD found that 9% of zero-hours contracts contained such clauses. This effectively means that an employer can retain its own exclusive private reserve army of labour to use as and when it is needed, without having to pay wages when no work is available.

The government is clear that there will be no ban on exclusivity clauses: ‘It is clear that, in some circumstances, exclusivity clauses are useful and justifiable. For example, an individual may be entrusted with confidential commercial information which would make it problematic should that person choose to work with a competitor business at the same time.’ Given that the overwhelming majority of zero-hours contracts are for unskilled work, the likelihood that there would be access to confidential information is remote. However, those on zero-hours contracts with exclusivity clauses will be unable to meet any JSA commitment they may have to look for additional work.

The TUC has said ‘there is an urgent need for the government to legislate to protect zero-hours contract workers.’ However, if this means just banning exclusivity clauses while zero-hours contracts stay in place, it will be no great victory for the working class. Our call should not be for the reform of zero-hours contracts, but for their abolition.

Mark Moncada